One in five British children have a phone by age four

Posted: 17th April 2023

Source: The Times

One in five three and four-year-olds in the UK have their own mobile phone, according to Ofcom research.

By the age of nine, half of children own a mobile and by twelve nearly all children use one, the regulator’s Children and parents: media use and attitudes report revealed.

This acceleration coincides with the move for many children from primary to secondary school, which occurs around the age of 11.

Most seven to eighteen-year-olds (68 per cent) owned a games console or handheld player and a further 9 per cent had access to one. Some 87 per cent of three to four-year-olds have used YouTube, 19 per cent used TikTok and 17 per cent used Snapchat, the report said.

Ofcom said that children were gravitating to “dramatic” online videos, which appear designed to maximise stimulation but require minimal effort and focus.

These videos, popularised by the likes of Mr Beast, Infinite and JackSucksAtStuff, are often short-form, and centre around the themes of conflict, extreme challenges and high stakes. They have a distinct and stimulating editing style, designed to create maximum dramatic effect.

YouTube was the most used online platform among three to 17-year-olds, followed by WhatsApp, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. Use of WhatsApp, TikTok and Snapchat increased from 2021 (up from 53 per cent, 50 per cent and 42 per cent respectively), while Facebook was less popular this year (down from 40 per cent).

Sonia Livingstone, a professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, told the Guardian: “Ofcom doesn’t report how many have a contract or capacity to make calls, but I am guessing it’s close to zero. So it will most likely be a convenient way to watch funny videos.”

According to Livingstone, screen time is often used as an unhelpful proxy for other problems, such as the lack of access to other activities.

“Too much time on a phone matters mainly if it is at the cost of parent-child interaction — the most important thing of all — along with children getting sufficient sleep and physical exercise,” she said. “If children are doing homework, watching an educational app, chatting with a grandparent, dancing in front of a music video, playing a game with a sibling, there is no evidence that any of this is a problem, and some evidence that it’s a benefit.”

Max Davie, a consultant paediatrician based in London, said parents’ central consideration should be how to help their child’s development, rather than simply policing phone use.

“Children need social interaction, communication, play, exercise and sleep,” he said. “Rather than a list of acceptable things or a time limit, think whether the smartphone use is helping those things or getting in the way.”

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